Home > Singapore Scene > Remember the Sabbath Day – Exploring cultural and traditional concepts of the domestic helper

Remember the Sabbath Day – Exploring cultural and traditional concepts of the domestic helper

I love this age of social media. No sooner is a controversial topic mentioned than a furore of comments will appear everywhere on the net. One of the latest flurry involves the foreign domestic worker having an off day.

Before I continue, let me make my stand clear – I am a firm believer of the Sabbath day. No I do not need to impose my religious beliefs on anyone – but the basic principle of the Sabbath day is to give all a rest. I also want to state that I do not employ a foreign domestic worker at the present.

Coming back to the domestic worker, I was reading the comments online. There are two very vocal groups – the human rights champions who lambasted the unreasonable, monstrous employers, and the affronted employers who were both aggrieved and indignant. That set me thinking. Is it really because employers are unreasonable, and unable to see their domestic workers except as slaves? An obvious foreigner lashed out at Singaporeans and said that the world is condemning us as being inhumane. Yet, there is no doubt that Asians are amongst the most hospitable. So what is going on?

Somehow my mind went back to what my mother used to tell me. As a child, her father was a successful businessman. He hailed from China, and with my grandmother had a brood of 13 children. They were well-to-do enough to have a little “mui-chye” or little servant girl, for every child. This is not a foreign concept by a long shot. These servants are only slightly better off than slaves. If they are lucky, they get “employed” by families who treat them well and give them proper food and rest. They may even get additional money. If not, their lives are just spent on working with very little to look forward to. They tend to be from rural villages, and being dirt poor, often their services are paid in advance in a lump sum to the parents. To be offered food and shelter, and some money to help the family tie over poverty is about all they can hope for. Everything else is a bonus. As for days off, they have very few, and are often saved up so that they can visit their families back in their villages.

Then there are people like my aunt. She came from a really wealthy family. She had what is called a “Laima” which translates nursemaid. In such families, these servants look after the “siew chye” or little missy since birth. They usually are the Amahs or the servants who wear black trousers and white starched tops, with plaited hair. These are the equivalent of the English butler, I suppose, in terms of price and efficiency. Children in such households tend to get so attached to these servants that they eventually are treated as family members. This is hardly surprising as they are the surrogate mothers and spend much more time with their young charges than their employers. As their charges grow up, they are usually regarded as a godmother of sorts. In the case of my aunt, this Hoe Chye stayed on and looked after her children who loved her dearly. Eventually, she was sent to a nursing home, paid for by my aunt, where she died. As for days off, I do believe they get some – not on a weekly basis, and often they just have an afternoon off, not the whole day.

If you think this is only peculiar to historical Singapore or Malaysia, think again. In the 1990s, my husband was posted to Indonesia. The landlady had a whole household of servants – similar to what my mother probably experienced before her family fell on hard times. I had a Filipina helper once, who told me that when she was young, she had her own “ya-ya” – a term similar in meaning to the amahs of old. Eventually though, her family became poor, and she was “sold off” to an aunt to work as a servant – very similar in concept to the “mui chyes” I mentioned earlier. In India and Pakistan the concept of the domestic worker appears to be similar. Even in Africa where I lived for a while, my houseboy has his own houseboy. While we give our houseboys days off, I can assure you he does not.

I remember way back in 1985-6, my mother visited me and was totally unhappy with the way I handled my maid. She could not understand why I gave her so much time off, and how come she could have such long periods of rest in between. My mother was not an unkind person – she just found it wrong – given the environment she grew up in. I suspect there are quite a few of us out there that are similarly indoctrinated. Consciously or subconsciously, we have imbibed and accepted the traditional modus operandi. Therefore, could it be that the general reluctance to give maids a day off has some cultural roots? Some maids hailing from rural provinces may well find this concept foreign. Perhaps that is why even when the local agents recruited these maids, and I hope, enlightened them about the working conditions, there were no protests. Until they compare with those who have more privileges, perhaps they really did not expect them at all. Maybe this is one of the “bad” influences that some employers are trying to avoid.

Many also blame the security bond. They say because of the unfair responsibility laid on the employers to ensure the good behavior of the maids, they are compelled to act like prison wardens. Actually, this is a very real complaint. Personally, I have never understood the reason for the security bond PLUS levies. MOM just came out to declare that if maids get pregnant, employers will not lose their bonds. But the bond remains so that in the event of runaways, the costs of locating the maids and subsequent repatriation can be taken care of.(mom statement in todayonline) I find that very hard to swallow given the levies they have collected. The number of runaways and problem maids are so small that the costs involved are but a drop in the ocean compared.

Security bond aside though, traditional relationship between employers and household workers do involve looking after the latter morally and includes some control over their relationships. When a “mui-chye” works in a household, she is treated like a very poor cousin or step daughter in most families. Thus even marriage proposals may have to be approved by the matriarch. For me, while this has little impact, I do feel highly responsible towards my maids. I have heard of too many maids being cheated and abused – sexually or otherwise and a host of other stories. So, for some employers at least, the concern for the maids’ welfare is genuine. The easy way out is to limit their days out.

Then there is the clamour to have better defined working hours. The traditional concept of housework cannot be easily confined by hours. Just think of the housewife. She does not stop washing dishes just because it is past 6pm. If she finds it cooler at night, she may prefer to do her ironing in the evening, especially since hubby may be home to entertain the children while she does so. Furthermore, like in the case of Corazon, who used to look after my aunt Violet for quite a few years before her passing at age 90, there are times when night duties are necessary. Aunt Vi occasionally required medication or help to go to the toilet at night. Corazon availed herself because of her feeling of responsibility and affection for auntie Vi.

In contrast, I once employed a girl called Jennifer. One night, my husband was just coming back from a meeting and I was still awake. It was nearly midnight, and I heard the bedroom door open. Apparently, my little girl who was about 5 at that time, needed to go to the toilet. It was a very windy evening. As they went back to the room, the door slammed right smack onto Sarah’s hands. Naturally I went to tend to her. She was bleeding quite badly, and crying uncontrollably. Jennifer just marched straight into her room to sleep – well within her rights. Fortunately my husband came home then. I called some friends to pray for us, and headed for the A&E department. The doctor took one look, and said that she needed immediate surgery with General Anaesthesia. The nail had to be removed and the finger stitched. That meant an overnight stay. When we returned the next day, Jennifer had to cheek to tell me she was shocked to see Sarah missing the next morning. I told her that her actions told me a lot about how much she cared. She did not stay long, even though I did not sack her then, (call me a softie, but I give more than a second chance, sometimes too many more) as she continued to make mistake after mistake.

I am by no means advocating a 24 hour day for maids. Neither am I advocating no Sabbath rest. Stay tuned for a continuation.

Picture above taken from http://eastcoastlife.blogspot.com

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